Pets Get Arthritis Too!

Photo: Andrew Lightman

Everybody knows about arthritis. I’m only 40 but I’m pretty sure I’ve got some already. Did you know that dogs and cats get arthritis too? A lot of people are familiar with arthritis in older, large-breed dogs, but it can also appear in small dogs and even cats.

Arthritis refers to inflammation in the joints. It develops over time due to wear and tear on the joints. Being overweight or obese can lead to arthritis, since carrying around all that extra weight puts more stress on the joints. Any joint that has been injured, such as a cruciate injury in the knee, is more likely to develop arthritis. Dogs with hip dysplasia (a condition in which the hip joint is unstable) are also prone to arthritis in their hips.

How can you tell if your pet has arthritis? Sometimes it’s obvious, as when you see limping or stiffness (especially when first getting up), difficulty getting up, or trouble with stairs or slippery surfaces. Sometimes the signs are much more subtle, such as a general decrease in activity or not wanting to go for long walks. Arthritis can be especially tough to appreciate in cats, which often just move around less.

You have options for treating arthritis. Keep in mind that arthritis is a progressive condition, meaning it tends to get worse as time goes on. As the symptoms get worse, different treatments may be needed.

Keeping your pet fit and lean is the single most effective treatment for arthritis. Getting an overweight or obese pet with arthritis to lose weight will help more than any medicine can. Exercise and activity are also beneficial. Traditionally moderate, low-impact exercise is recommended, although recent studies suggest any type of exercise is helpful.

Glucosamine is frequently recommended for arthritis. Glucosamine is a compound that the body uses to make cartilage. Several large studies have suggested no apparent benefit to using glucosamine for arthritis in people. However, it is very safe, and some pets do seem to improve when taking it. Glucosamine alone may be enough for mild cases of arthritis, and it probably works better as a preventative than as a treatment. The quality of glucosamine supplements can vary widely; your vet can recommend a brand.

Next up is Adequan, a medicine that helps keep cartilage healthy. It is an extremely safe medication, with few side effects, and approved by the FDA. It is definitely effective. I estimate that on Adequan about 75 percent of my patients improve. Adequan is given as an injection, which you can learn to give at home. People are usually nervous about giving shots to their pet, but I promise it is not hard to learn and most pets barely feel it.

The most commonly prescribed treatment for arthritis in dogs is a group of drugs known as NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs). Humans take NSAIDs all the time. They include well know medicines such as aspirin, Ibuprofen, Alleve, and many others. Most of these human NSAIDs are not safe for dogs (please do not give your pet any human medicine without consulting with your veterinarian!). However, there are many NSAIDs made just for dogs, such as Rimadyl, Deramaxx, Metacam, and Previcox.

NSAIDs are effective for treating arthritis. They help reduce pain and inflammation in the joints. They can be used just when needed, or they can be used on a regular, long-term basis. These medicines are generally well tolerated, the most common side effects being upset stomach, vomiting, diarrhea, or loss of appetite. Very rarely dogs may have an adverse reaction that can affect the liver. If dogs are on NSAIDs long-term, then periodic monitoring blood tests are recommended.

Unfortunately, NSAIDs can be harmful to cats, so these medicines are not approved for long-term use in cats (some are acceptable for a one-time use, such as after a surgery). Anyone who develops an NSAID that can be used safely for long periods in cats will change everything about managing pain in kitties!

Finally a few complementary medicine therapies deserve mentioning. There is good evidence that acupuncture can benefit many pets. Physical therapy and fish oils may help. Lastly cold laser therapy is a relatively new treatment that is still being evaluated.

Of course not every treatment is right for every patient. Your veterinarian can examine your pet for signs of arthritis and can recommend the best options for your furry friend. Arthritis may be inevitable, but with these tools you can help your pets stay mobile and pain free!